LAS VEGAS — He came. He saw. He conquered. And just like that, Kawhi Leonard is heading home, leaving behind incredible memories for an entire country to savour.
Not one but two earthquakes shook the NBA universe either late Friday, or early Saturday, depending on where you were.
First there was the actual earthquake that had Thomas & Mack Arena here in Las Vegas swaying and forced a premature end to the night’s Summer League games.
But the far bigger story dropped a couple of hours later, when Kawhi Leonard’s future plans were finally revealed. The Los Angeles Clippers had aggressively pursued him all season, to the point that they had even been fined for tampering, but in the end, all that matters is Leonard is signing with the Clippers and reports immediately broke that fellow all-star forward Paul George, who also grew up in the L.A. area, would be joining him, thanks to a massive deal involving the Oklahoma City Thunder that ESPN reported on. The Thunder will get Canadian point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a vast collection of first-round draft picks.
And while everyone seemed to think the Clippers had moved out of the picture, that Toronto or the Los Angeles Lakers would land him, the Clippers stealthily managed to swoop in and pull off one of the great power-ups of all-time. It cost them their future, but it was time to make a big swing.
So, what does it mean? For the Raptors, the best player in franchise history, and it isn’t really close, is gone in a flash. But not before leading the club to its first NBA title with one of the great runs in playoff history. All of it, the laugh, the load management, the ramping up, to the post-season dominance, the parade was a great story. It’s over too soon, but nobody can complain, even if it’s going to hurt a whole country quite a lot.
Leonard didn’t want to be a Raptor in the first place after forcing his way out of San Antonio, but was professional, and gave his all and got the job done. He was free to make a decision and he goes home with a chance to write a new story, to finally take the sad-sack Clippers, with a history just shy of being the worst in league history, perhaps to the top of the mountain. With George and some solid role players they’ll have a shot.
The Raptors will have many important decisions to make. Starting shooting guard and fellow former San Antonio Spur Danny Green will sign with the Lakers, for two years and $30 million, according to ESPN. Right now Toronto’s likely replacements for Leonard and Green are OG Anunoby and Norman Powell. Team leader Kyle Lowry, centres Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and sixth man Fred VanVleet are all entering the final years of their deals.
Running it back is no longer an option. Breaking it all up, even more than what happened late Friday now has to be on the table. Having Pascal Siakam around will help. A retool could work. This group would still be in the mix for a home-court spot in the East. But make no mistake about it, losing Leonard and Green is tough.
Not as tough, perhaps, as the Lakers seeing both Leonard and George spurn them for the other Staples Center tenants, or as the New York Knicks striking out yet again spectacularly, but definitely a massive punch or three to the gut.
Some would argue the Clippers played some dirty pool in conveniently having Lawrence Frank or third-in-command Mark Hughes show up where the Raptors were all season long to show Leonard and his camp some love (Hughes goes back decades with his close friend Steve Fisher, Leonard’s college coach, making him an obvious in with Leonard and his camp), but in professional sports, whatever it takes to get things done is the way.
The Clippers pulled it off and deserve credit for that.
But so does Leonard for what he did for the Raptors, for the city and for the country. That can never be taken away. Retire his number. Hell, maybe even build a statue, unless only players from franchises that haven’t won anything in over 50 years get those at Maple Leaf Square.
He left, but he also left behind so much.
It was magic. And now it’s over.
What comes next for the Raptors? Much like Leonard’s plans all year, nobody really knows for sure. Masai Ujiri and his staff said they have backup plans. Now they’ll have to prove it.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019